Films discussed in this essay:

Abraham Lincoln, directed by D.W. Griffith

Abe Lincoln in Illinois, directed by John Cromwell

Young Mr. Lincoln, directed by John Ford

Gore Vidal's Lincoln, directed by Lamont Johnson

Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, directed by David Grubin

Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the "angel mother" of Abraham Lincoln, died of milk sickness when her son was nine. But she has many proud descendants, including actor Tom Hanks, who co-produced the recent HBO series, John Adams (see my "A Monument to Adams," CRB, Summer 2008). Hanks has spoken of a comparable effort for his illustrious ancestor, but that doesn't seem to be happening this bicentennial year. Instead, Steven Spielberg will direct a feature film based upon Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln(2005), starring Liam Neeson and written by Tony Kushner.

I wonder whether Kushner, the author of Angels in America and a gay icon, will base his interpretation on C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005), which argues that Lincoln was the original Log Cabin Republican. A "sex researcher" not a historian, Tripp has been faulted for skewing the evidence. For instance, he places great emphasis on Lincoln's youthful bond with Joshua Speed, which included sharing a bed and signing letters "yours forever." But as several historians (Goodwin among them) have noted, bed-sharing and sentimental friendship were both common in 19th-century America. It is well known that young Lincoln was awkward around women and preferred the company of men. But in all the inherited gossip, there is no hint that his sex life followed suit.

Walt Whitman wrote that "the complete limning of…[Lincoln's] future portrait" would require "the eyes and brains and finger-touch of Plutarch and Aeschylus and Michelangelo, assisted by Rabelais." Yet even that dream team would find it hard, in the space of a two-hour movie, to do justice to Lincoln's political genius. In an eight- or ten-hour TV series, perhaps, it might be possible for ordinary gifted mortals (such as Tom Hooper, who directed John Adams and, before that,Elizabeth I) to scratch the surface, at least. Yet in Lincoln's phrase from the Gettysburg Address, the cinematic record of America's greatest president remains "unfinished work."

Early Efforts

The real Lincoln was never captured on magic lantern, zoetrope, or any other motion-picture device invented during the 1860s. But beginning in 1908 he was a favored subject in silent films, with impersonators like Ben Chapin later portraying him pardoning condemned soldiers and doing other good deeds in an extension of what historian Merrill D. Peterson calls Lincoln's "apotheosis." Typically these films did not show Lincoln freeing the slaves, or if they did, it was to show that he freed them in order to deport the entire black population to an overseas colony. Such was the message of Thomas Dixon's best-selling novel and play, The Clansman (1905), and of D.W. Griffith's much admired and abhorred film, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Early 20th-century America had two Lincolns, one for the white folks and one for the black. Griffith never accepted the latter, but his 1930 film, Abraham Lincoln (one of only two "talking pictures" he ever made), contains none of the racist riffs found in The Birth of a Nation. Starring Walter Huston, the celebrated stage actor and father of director John Huston,Abraham Lincoln dutifully pauses at each Station of the Lincoln Cross, including the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And it has two other saving graces: an undercurrent of sardonic humor and the look of a 19th-century photograph brought to life. When these converge, the result is an eerie but wonderful illusion: the real Abraham Lincoln cracking up at one of his own droll stories.

The next major dramatization of Lincoln was Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1938 play by Robert E. Sherwood, adapted for the screen in 1940. During World War II Sherwood wrote speeches for FDR and served as director of the Office of War Information, and afterward he distinguished himself by writing the screenplay for the 1946 classic, The Best Years of Our Lives. Because of these achievements, Abe Lincoln in Illinois is frequently lauded, not least because its star, Raymond Massey, bears a strong physical resemblance to Lincoln. And Massey certainly brings out Lincoln's folksy, yarn-spinning side, as in the invented scene where he is traveling down the Sangamon River on a flat-bottom boat loaded with pigs, only to run aground in New Salem, Illinois. The pigs get loose and ol' Abe gives chase, and when he's jus' about to grab a-holt of the last squealer, he spies the purtiest gal in town, Ann Rutledge. Folks, I don' mind tellin' you, this is one of the cutest gosh-darn meetin's them movie fellers ever throwed up on the screen.

Unfortunately, Sherwood's hayseed lacks certain essential parts, such as a thick hide, an iron will, and a belly burning with ambition. It is sometimes said of Lincoln that he was "passive," meaning he sat back and waited for events to shape themselves. But according to Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, this was because he "communicated no more of his own thoughts and purposes than he thought would subserve the ends he had in view." Lincoln was a master poker player, not a Raggedy Abe doll needing a woman, Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon), to supply him with spunk. In the words of his law partner, William Herndon, Lincoln "was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."

Why did Sherwood create such a shrunken Lincoln? Maybe because he wanted to make a statement about American democratic values at a time when the future was being claimed by totalitarian dictators ravenous for conquest and power. Compared with Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Showa (Hirohito), Sherwood's Lincoln is a simple, good-hearted Cincinnatus, happy to plow his fields and indifferent to the lure of high office. "Please," he says, "I just want to be left alone." When persuaded to wear the toga, he obeys, but with a stoop, as though already groaning under the yoke of duty. In the symbolic realm of the stage, this device might have worked. But 70 years later, in the more literal medium of film, it rings false.

Greatness and Melancholy

By contrast, John Ford's classic film, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), still rings true. The star, Henry Fonda, is too handsome, even with skillfully applied schnoz, and too graceful, even with artfully executed clumsiness, to resemble Lincoln. But Fonda captures what Massey misses. First, he captures Lincoln's wiliness. Watching this unprepossessing young lawyer in a rural murder trial gull both the prosecutor and the plaintiff, we glimpse the future president who, when two cabinet members, William Henry Seward and Salmon P. Chase, handed in their resignations, refused to accept them but conspicuously stuck them in his pocket, saying, "I can ride on now, I've got a pumpkin in each end of my bag."

Second, Young Mr. Lincoln captures what film scholar Geoffrey O'Brien calls "the singularity of Lincoln." Like Sherwood, Ford wanted to portray Lincoln as a democratic hero. But unlike Sherwood, Ford also admitted "the paradox that Lincoln, the great democratic hero, triumphs by a real intellectual and moral superiority (not to mention the physical superiority of the champion rail-splitter) over his fellows." When Fonda says, "People used to say I could sink an ax deeper than anyone they ever saw," he expresses both sides of Lincoln's character. As O'Brien puts it, he is "hinting, for anyone subtle enough to catch the hint, at his own depths, while at the same time maintaining a guileless front that could pass for country boy naivete."

What Ford's film does not show, except through a hokey Hollywood finale (thunder, lightning, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") is that the mature Lincoln would pay an agonizing price for his singularity. His fabled reticence bespeaks a chronic inability to connect deeply with others or to trust them entirely. Combined with Mary's mental instability, this reticence has been fodder for psychobiographers ever since 1931, when a squabble broke out among psychoanalysts over how best to diagnose Abe. That particular dispute was settled, more or less, in a 1933 book called Lincoln and the Doctors, by Milton H. Shutes, which beat back some of the more bizarre theories in favor of calling Lincoln "a depressive type of psychoneurotic within the bounds of so-called normality."

Less clinically, Goodwin concludes that although Lincoln suffered "two despondent episodes in his early life" and "had a melancholy temperament," he also "possessed an uncanny understanding of his shifting moods, a profound self-awareness that enabled him to find constructive ways to alleviate sadness and stress." Goodwin's book is also about Lincoln's first cabinet, so it is telling when she adds that "compared with his colleagues, it is clear that…[Lincoln] possessed the most even-tempered disposition of them all." With all due respect to psychiatry, Lincoln's "psychoneurosis" is not the point. Every human being has his portion of private sorrow; what matters is how well he bears it. The word for that is character.

Still, no dramatist or filmmaker can portray Lincoln without having some sort of fix on his emotional life. For many years, this was provided by Herndon, who after interviewing hundreds of people who had known Lincoln, concocted a posthumous account of his youth that, reflecting Herndon's lack of imagination and dislike of Mary, adhered to the formulas of 19th-century melodrama: happy, footloose young Abe falls in love with Ann Rutledge, the embodiment of feminine perfection, only to lose her to a fever. Broken-hearted (cue the violins), he heads for Springfield, where, dazzled by the wealthy, well connected Todd family, he allows himself to be roped into a marriage that quickly descends into a living hell.

According to Peterson, the majority of biographers have either ignored this melodrama or swallowed it whole, depicting Mary as "a modern Xanthippe—a shrew, a curse, a haughty fool." A few chroniclers have treated Mary gently, but overall, there have been "hundreds of brutal words for every kind one." They should all heed Andrew Ferguson's sage advice: "The Lincolns' marriage, like your marriage and mine, was a mystery to everyone but the two people involved directly, and maybe to them too." From this perspective, the best approach would be to extend maximum sympathy to both husband and wife as they meet, marry, produce children, rise to political power, and then pass together through the valley of the shadow of death.

Vidal's Lincoln

Has any film done this? Curiously, the first to try was a TV miniseries based on a novel that does not try. In 1988, NBC aired Gore Vidal's Lincoln, a 190-minute drama based on the author's 1984 best-seller, Lincoln. Some critics faulted the miniseries for departing from the novel. But that's why I praise it. Chock full of information and written in a breezy, world-weary style, Vidal's novel strips Lincoln of all moral grandeur. Indeed, as Herbert Mitgang wrote in 1988, Vidal accepts "the incredible theory," set forth by "revisionist academics," that "Lincoln really wanted the Civil War, with its 600,000 casualties, in order to eclipse the Founding Fathers and insure his own place in the pantheon of great presidents." Replying to this accusation in the New York Review of Books, Vidal wrote, "Yes, that is pretty much what I came to believe."

Vidal supports his theory by quoting a passage from Lincoln's 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield:

Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions unexplored…. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread the path of any predecessor however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving free men.

Then, puffing out his scholarly chest, Vidal intones: "What the Trojan War was to the Greeks, the Civil War is to us. What the wily Ulysses was to the Greeks, the wily Lincoln is to us."

These literary touches bring Vidal's self-vindication to a highfalutin close, but they are ill-conceived. The first is taken out of context, the second inaccurate and misleading. In context, the Lyceum passage is one item in a list of familiar dangers to republican self-rule: the mob, the vigilante, the demagogue, the tyrant. To cast Lincoln as the very thing he is warning against is itself a cheap demagogue's trick. As for the Homeric allusion, Ulysses was indeed wily—along with being peerless in battle, true to his wife and son, and worthy of Athena's special favor. But Ulysses did not start the Trojan War, any more than Lincoln started the Civil War. Just as the Greek hero sought to avoid joining Agamemnon's campaign, so did the American president strive to avoid the conflagration that began at Fort Sumter. But when the inevitable came, both faced it with ferocity, fortitude, and sorrow. Vidal ends his novel with an even more ill-conceived comparison: Lincoln and Otto von Bismarck. Beware literati making political analogies!

Gore Vidal's Lincoln does not improve greatly on the novel's diminished portrait of Lincoln, but to its credit, neither does it follow Vidal in depicting him as having syphilis or dreaming of Napoleonic conquest. Proviso: to appreciate the film (available on DVD but only in a murky, low-quality transfer), you must be able to absorb large doses of Sam Waterston. Even if you like Waterston in other roles, such as District Attorney Jack McCoy in TV's Law & Order, you must brace yourself for a Lincoln who is an inch or two shorter than most of his cabinet members and whose emotions run to about the same depth. But this runty, earnest Lincoln improves as he goes along—not least because he gets a lot of help from Mary Tyler Moore (yes, you heard that right), who as Mary Lincoln gives what may be the finest performance of her career.

Here is where the miniseries departs most admirably from the novel. Instead of Vidal's cold and cursory depiction of the Lincoln marriage, and of Mary as an annoying appendage, the film places Mary where she belongs, at the heart of the story. It was said of Mary Lincoln that she was "either in the garret or the cellar." In today's clinical parlance, the diagnosis would be bipolar disorder. Regardless of the term, Moore's Mary is a woman ruled by emotional extremes that she can neither abide nor abate. Her embarrassing outbursts, manic spending sprees, black depressions, and uncontrollable rages—all are shown with no punches pulled. But Moore also keeps in view Mary's intelligence, self-awareness, and underlying goodness. This is the family member we all recognize, the "difficult" one whose volatility makes her impossible to live with, but whose love for us (and ours for her) makes her impossible to live without. Like the gloriously chugging locomotive in the opening and closing scenes, Moore's performance gives momentum and weight to the rest.

The Ken Burns Effect

Speaking of chugging locomotives, there are plenty of them in another TV series about the Lincoln marriage, the 360-minute documentary, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, which aired on PBS in February 2001. There are also plenty of spinning carriage wheels, pounding hooves, falling raindrops, lighted windows, and hands doing everything from splitting rails to playing harpsichords, stitching velvet to signing historic documents. There's also a lot of mood music, two actors (David Morse and Holly Hunter) reciting passages from the Lincolns' papers, and finally (it almost goes without saying) the steady cadence of David McCullough's voice stroking its serene way through the narrative.

This school of documentary film making is ripe for parody, and one of these days some smart aleck is going to nail it. But you have to hand it to the pros, people like Ken Burns, his brother Ric Burns, and in this case David Grubin, who wrote and directed Abraham and Mary Lincoln: they have perfected the craft of bringing history to life on film without resorting to cheesy "re-enactments" or "dramatizations." Abraham and Mary Lincoln relies on talking heads, "beauty shots" of natural landscapes and historic buildings where particular events took place, and (most of all) a rich mixture of period photographs, press clippings, posters, and other visual documents. Here the essential piece of equipment is the rostrum camera: a device that adds movement and emphasis to still images by scanning, panning, and zooming. (Nowadays you can buy a computer program to do this via digital processing: it's called the "Ken Burns Effect.")

Grubin is a master of the rostrum camera, squeezing every possible meaning out of a limited stash of sepia-toned photographs of Abraham, Mary, their sons, and most powerfully, the devastated faces, bodies, and battlefields of what Lincoln called "this frightful war." But how many times can we zoom in on the image of some 19th-century figure who could not imagine "acting naturally" before a camera? There's only so much feeling to be wrung out of these stiffly composed portraits with their carefully neutral expressions, held rigidly in place while the image slowly registered on the plate. When done right, this kind of documentary can be moving, even dramatic. But ironically, the more dramatic it is, the more it fosters a craving for the real thing.

Can any film do justice to the political genius of Abraham Lincoln? Probably not. But there's plenty of room for improvement. When the actor capable of playing Lincoln shows up, I hope he will begin by studying Huston's ability to bring old daguerreotypes to life, then graduate to Fonda's ability to dwell in two places at once: first, the hardscrabble ground inhabited by his backwoods peers; second, the realm of greater understanding where political savvy and learning ripen into what Aristotle called practical wisdom. Young Mr. Lincoln suggests how these two realms were joined in Lincoln's youth. To suggest how they were joined in his maturity is a taller order, needless to say. When the film capable of meeting that order appears, I hope it will include this strange but eloquent moment, witnessed and later written about by Walt Whitman:

I shall not easily forget the first time I ever saw Abraham Lincoln. It must have been about the 18th or 19th of February, 1861. It was rather a pleasant afternoon, in New York city, as he arrived there from the West, to remain a few hours, and then pass on to Washington, to prepare for his inauguration. I saw him in Broadway, near the site of the present Post-office…. The omnibuses and other vehicles had all been turn'd off, leaving an unusual hush…. A tall figure step'd out…then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turn'd round for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds. There were no speeches—no compliments—no welcome—as far as I could hear, not a word said. Still much anxiety was conceal'd in that quiet. Cautious persons had fear'd some mark'd insult or indignity to the President-elect—for he possess'd no personal popularity at all in New York city, and very little political…. But on this occasion, not a voice—not a sound…. He looked with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return'd the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of comedy, almost farce, such as Shakespeare puts in his blackest tragedies. 

I get goose bumps just reading this passage, so I can imagine the power of it captured truly on camera. The day that happens will be a great day for American cinematic art.